Part of the joy in conquering the AFI Top 100 list is the chance to finally see some of the movies from beginning to end. With almost every film on the list, even if you haven’t seen it, chances are you know something about it. The iconic image of a shallow faced Walken holding a gun to his head during a game of Russian roulette is what has always come to mind for me. It’s on most of the press releases and poster art. The scene has been parodied by many movies and television shows. However, it’s not until I could put them into the context of the movie that I could truly appreciate how powerful those scenes truly are.
The Deer Hunter was directed by Michael Cimino. Cimino is more well known for being directing Heaven’s Gate. A notoriously awful movie that has been cited as the reason the ‘Director Driven System’ came to an end. (Extra Credit: Final Cut: Dreams & Disasters in the Making of Heaven’s Gate by Steven Bach) The screenplay was credited to Deric Washburn with story to Michael Cimino & Deric Washburn and Louis Garfinkle & Quinn K Redeker. The finished product bares a very small resemblance to what the story started out as. There was a cloud of drama surrounding the film when it came to the writing credits. The Writers Guild of America awarded screen credits as they saw correct, but depending on whose story you listen to, it was either fair or not. It went on to be nominated for nine Oscars; winning five including Best Picture and Best Director.
The story is told in a ‘Three-Act’ structure. The First Act presents us with three friends (Mike, Nick, and Steven) who are all being drafted to Vietnam. We watch as they prepare for Steven’s wedding and their enlistment. They party, drink, and joke around with one another, all the while trying to avoid talking about what they might be facing. The Second Act drops in the middle of the war. We watch as the three are reunited and captured. While being held as prisoners of war, they are forced to play Russian roulette by their captors. After narrowly escaping, the men struggle down river, only to be separated again. Nick, believing his friends are dead, wanders the streets of Saigon. He stumbles upon a back room Russian roulette game where he causes a riot by interrupting the game. Mike is in attendance, but unable to get Nicks attention as he is ushered away. The Third Act starts with Mike returning home. Despite the hero’s welcome, he is withdrawn and distant. Feeling the grief of thinking he’s the only one to have survived, he also becomes conflicted as his feelings for Linda (Nicks fiance) become stronger. Upon hearing that Steven has survived, he visits him to find out he had been recieving large sums of money in the mail from an unknown person in Saigon. Knowing this could only be from Nick, Mike tracks him down in Saigon. He is lost in his own mind and cannot recognize Mike. In an effort to bring back his memory, Mike enters himself against Nick in a game of Russian roulette. Nick recognizes Mike, but when he pulls the trigger, he isn’t met with an empty chamber.
While the movie has some visually stunning moments and unique perspective shots, it’s the performances that truly make the movie great. Robert De Niro brings the multi-layered performance he is so well known for. He shines most in the moments of silence that the director, smartly, allowed to play out on there own time. For me, the scene in which he checks into the motel is powerful and painful. After seeing the party Linda planned, he has the cab drive past and take him to a motel. After checking in, he goes into the room where he begins to deal with the emotions that were running through him. Guilt, relief, and pain flash across his face as he slowly sinks to the floor. You can’t help but hurt for this man.
Christopher Walken’s performance is amazing, but in a totally different way then De Niro. Walken brings a more internal performance that is haunting in it’s own way. I wouldn’t call him simple, but he’s a very middle of the road guy. He works, likes his girl, parties with his friends, and enjoys hunting. Unlike Mike, who will be changed by war, but could eventually move on, Nick is basically crushed by it. Seeing the transformation from the beginning to the end is almost unbelievable. By the end, Nick is broken beyond repair and completely lost in his head. It could be tempting for an actor to play this by indicating they are crazy or have ticks. Walken’s drawn face and glossed over eyes show us more then anything that could have been said. With the things he experiences, you can’t help but understand why he would just break. Walken’s performance earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
The unfortunate reality of films that deal with Vietnam is that they will always connect to there audiences in some way. For my parents generation, some of them were there or active at the end of the war. For me, it’s seeing the parallels in our current wars. If nothing else, almost everyone has experienced some event that has changed them in a strong way. Hands down one of the more realistic and human movies about Vietnam, I’m glad I finally watched it. It is most defiantly a lot more then just a movie about Russian roulette.